Guns, Suffering, Alienation and the American Dream

Another mass shooting (this time in Oregon), another round of pain, another national collective suffering and searching for answers. How could someone do this? What causes it? Why only in America?

The debate seems to have come down to a two-sided choice: on the one side are people who believe the death toll is the fault of guns and lack of gun regulation. On the other are those who say the real culprit isn’t guns, but serious mental illness. There are well-meaning, intelligent people on both sides of the debate, and some people who take a more nuanced view that incorporates both arguments to varying degrees.

But what if both sides are wrong? What if the shootings are a result of something else, something larger, something more difficult to truly understand and, ultimately, fix? An excellent article in The New York Times on October 3 Titled “Mass Murderers Fit Profile, as Do Many Others Who Don’t Kill” points out that many of the shooters do not fit the definition of serious mentally illness—diseases such as schizophrenia—but are instead depressed, frustrated, isolated, withdrawn, alienated, rejected, angry and vengeful. Their negative emotional states cause them extreme suffering, and their suffering causes them to act in harmful, destructive ways.

I am somewhat of an expert on suffering, for reasons both positive and, well, not-so-positive. On the positive side of the ledger, I have been a longtime Zen Buddhism adherent, spending many thousands of hours in meditation, studying with Zen masters, reading Buddhist texts both ancient and modern. One of the core tenets of Buddhism—indeed the Buddha’s main teaching—is that the root of the human condition is suffering. On the not-so-positive side, I have struggled with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury, suffered through an acrimonious divorce, and been broke, living out of my van, depressed, confused, feeling alienated from society. It’s hard to explain what it truly feels like to not have a home, a physical place you can call your own, no one to go home to, to talk to, no money for food, etc. You might think you can understand what it’s like, but until it happens to you, there is no way to truly fathom what this kind of life does to one’s mind and body.

I have also spent time working with people with serious mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. While I am not a mental health professional, I can say from experience that most of these people, while often difficult to understand and deal with, are benign, harmless individuals.

The one universal theme that runs through the lives of all these men who commit mass shootings (The Times article points out that in one study of 160 mass shootings, only two of the protagonists were women) is that they are suffering. (If suffering is even the right word. The original Pali and Sanskrit term for Buddhist suffering is Dukkha, commonly translated as "suffering", "anxiety", "stress", or "unsatisfactoriness." Since The Language Log is ostensibly a blog about language, perhaps we should be looking at other words—like "torment" or "despair"—to describe the extreme emotional state of these individuals, a state which is certainly more than just anxiety. That is the subject for another blog post.)

But suffering from what, exactly? And what causes them to act on their suffering? Others who are suffering do not pick up guns and start killing people. Is it the degree of suffering? Is there a tipping point? A straw that breaks the camel's back? We often hear that “every man has his breaking point.” Did they just finally reach their breaking point? Is it that simple? And how do you define a person’s breaking point? Why is each person’s so different?

The answer to why each individual has a different reaction to their circumstances is easy: we are all different. We know that just by looking at each other, by interacting with each other. One of the great things about being human is that we are all unique individuals.

But the more complex and difficult question is why is this only happening in America? Why is our culture, our society, so different from the rest of the world? Here we usually get into he issue of gun culture and gun regulation. Many recent articles have looked at why other countries don’t have the problem we do. A 2012 article in Time titled “The Swiss Difference: A Gun Culture That Works” looked at how, despite being fourth in the world in the number of guns per capita (behind only the U.S, Yemen and Serbia), there has only been one mass shooting in Switzerland, in 2001.

On the other side of the spectrum, a article in The Atlantic in 2012 titled “A Land Without Guns: How Japan Has Virtually Eliminated Shooting Deaths” looked at how Japan has reduced it’s gun-related homicide rate to as little as two per year (that’s all gun-related homicides, not just mass shootings!).

Yet here in the United States, we far and away lead the world in mass shootings. An article published only a few days ago in The Wall Street Journal titled “U.S. Leads World in Mass Shootings” pointed out that between 2000 and 2014, the U.S. far outpaced the rest of the world, with 133 mass shootings. No other country was even in double digits. The next closest country was Germany, with six.

So what is it about American culture that causes us to be the world leader in this dubious category? Why are our citizens experiencing so much mental suffering that they pick up guns and start shooting people, often harmless strangers? The Buddha thought about that too, more than 2,000 years ago. He said that the root of suffering was craving, wanting things you don’t have. The anecdotal stories of why men in America pick up guns and start shooting have an eerily similar refrain running through them: they want a better life. Most of them are isolated, poor, have lost jobs, are unable to get along with people, with family. They want a girlfriend, money, a job, friends… They want to fit in, to be liked. Who doesn’t? Those sorts of wants and needs are universal, so why in America do they become so extreme as to cause people such suffering?

In the United States we have this goal called “The American Dream.” It’s a wonderful thing: the idea that anyone,—no matter their social standing, their income level or their education level—can through hard work, diligence and good old-fashioned pluck rise to the top, make a ton of money, buy a nice car, buy a nice house, get the girl, have a family, put the kids through college, etc., etc. It’s why millions of immigrants have been coming to America for hundreds of years. We have something the rest of the world doesn’t have; as Martin Luther King so aptly put it, we have a dream.

Other countries have this dream too, but it’s not such a big deal. In other countries it’s ok to be part of the great majority, instead of the elite two percent. It’s ok to live in the same town as your parents and your grandparents, to be a solid citizen, to spend your life working for the good of your community, to balance what you give yourself with what you give your society. It's ok to have a moderate house and a small car. I have traveled extensively in both Switzerland and Japan, and the attitude there toward self versus society is much different than in America. Here, we emphasize rugged individuality, working toward success and self-advancement. In most other cultures, success is still a noble goal, but there is equal emphasis on working for the good of your community. There is less emphasis on wanting what you don't have.

I was recently reading an essay by a non-American who was observing the American psyche. He wrote that “This republic, in its excessive worship of wealth, has fallen, without any of the restraints of tradition, into inequality, injustice and violence…” That was written in 1887 by José Martî, the great Cuban patriot and revolutionary who is Cuba’s version of Ben Franklin. He had been living in the U.S. for several years during the Cuban revolution, much as Franklin lived in Paris, and had come to observe and know the American character well.

I also recently had the good fortune to see the modern American Dream through the eyes of another foreign-born individual. I met Peter Georgescu when he was attending a think tank conference. Peter was born in Romania on the eve of World War II. He eventually came to the U.S., becoming Chairman and CEO of Young & Rubicam, one of the world’s largest marketing communications firms. In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times titled “Capitalists, Arise: We Need to Deal With Income Inequality” Peter wrote:

“I’m scared. My friend Ken Langone, a founder of the Home Depot, is scared. So are many other chief executives. We are afraid where income inequality will lead. We are creating a caste system from which it’s almost impossible to escape. This country has given me remarkable opportunities. When I was about 10 I was placed in a hard-labor camp along with my 15-year-old brother. With the help of the American people and President Eisenhower, we were reunited with our parents after five years in the camp. Through kindness and compassion, I was invited by the headmaster of Phillips Exeter Academy to attend his school. From there I went to Princeton and the Stanford Business School. During more than 50 years in the marketing, advertising and public relations business, I was helped by many kind people to fulfill the American dream. Ken Langone was the first in his family to finish high school and attend college. He has been successful in business as well as in philanthropy. Would young people like Ken and me get those opportunities now? I don’t think so.”

As Peter points out, there is a tradition in this country of providing opportunity, of helping others by sharing the wealth. Of kindness and compassion. Of government aid. Of philanthropy. These are the traits that enable the American Dream.

If we really want to stop mass shootings, we need to understand what causes them: we need to understand suffering, and what is causing such extreme despair that people pick up guns and start shooting. And if we really want to solve the problem, we must do more than just fix gun laws or mental health services. We need to fix income inequality. We need to build compassionate communities. We need to listen to the wisdom of our elders who understand the traditions that built hope and prosperity for all. In short, we need to fix the American Dream. No easy task, I know. But we’re Americans, we can do anything when we put our minds to it.

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